Proper 16

August 26, 2007
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Jeremiah 1:4-10
Reading 2: 
Psalm 71:1-6
Reading 3: 
Hebrews 12:18-29
Reading 4: 
Luke 13:10-17
By Rick Marshall

Discussing the text
We don’t have the luxury of a clear thread running through this set of texts. Taking the texts together in their broadest form, the theme seems to be “courage.” This is clearest in the Jeremiah text with the famous commissioning scene. Jeremiah will need courage because of the simple fact that the word of the Lord came to him. There’s trouble already. In a reminder of Moses in a similar situation with the Lord, Jeremiah tried to beg off. “I don’t know what to say; I’m just a kid.” The Lord tries to reassure him and says “Don’t be afraid.” Then the Lord touches Jeremiah’s mouth, conferring divine verbal power to him. “Behold, I have put my words in your mouth. See, I have set you this day over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.“ I don’t know who would be eager to have the responsibility of such power. Like many other commissioning stories, we know the commissioned one will need courage to perform the tasks set before him. I’m not sure how much help the Psalm is in this regard. The voice of the text seems to be afraid and is seeking refuge, safety and protection in God. The voice of the Psalm doesn’t sound very courageous. In the Luke text, Jesus is the very image of courage. While in a synagogue teaching, on the Sabbath no less, he performed an act of healing, something that qualifies as work and was therefore forbidden. His act is called into question by the leader of the synagogue. Jesus stood up to him, calling him a hypocrite. At the end of the story his adversaries were put to shame; “and all the people rejoiced at all the glorious things that were done by him.” But this kind of courage is going to get him into a lot of trouble as the gospel story unfolds. In this way, Jesus and Jeremiah are very similar. They have a strong message which they deliver in the face of great opposition by those with power. The people rejoice. Moves are made against them by the authorities. However, they persist with great courage and single-mindedness.

The text from Hebrews would require a lot of work to give it a proper context in which to understand the text and its many references and images. Yet, it is a call for endurance. Just a few verses before our assigned text is says “Lift up your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet.” This reminds us of the woman who was healed in the Luke text. She was “infirm,” and in this case, she couldn’t stand up straight. What a metaphor! Jesus made her stand up straight.

Process Theology and the text
Courage is a fundamental virtue in a process view. Since all creatures are co-creators with God, and God does not have all the power, we have some measure of power inherent in the decision of each moment as to how to become in the world. Possibilities, choices, decisions all point to a high degree of personal responsibility in who we (humans) become. Sometimes the possibilities that are open to us are difficult to choose among. Sometimes choosing the best possibility creates its own difficulties. For example, someone might be aware of white collar crime going on in their company. How to respond? Possibilities are inherent in the situation. Do you ignore it and go with the flow? That would be easiest personally. At least that choice would create less heart ache for yourself. But choosing to be a whistle blower might be a more difficult and problematic choice. Or, parents or partners of alcoholics are continually faced with dilemmas. To ignore behaviors and just let them go, or to take a more difficult, and perhaps helpful, course of action.

Preaching the text
I’m not sure how the reader is supposed to respond to these texts. I’m sure a preacher can be inventive enough to render the texts “safe” for our congregations. But where’s the courage in that? Aren’t we supposed to be like Jeremiah and Jesus, giving voice and action to God’s message in the face of great opposition? But that’s just asking for trouble. Jeremiah and Jesus were commissioned by God. Most preachers are commissioned by their congregations or denominations to preach, teach and heal. But being commission by your peers is not the same as being commissioned by God. Or is it? In either case, courage is a fundamental requirement for the task of giving voice and action to God’s message, because there is great opposition, especially within “the church.” The greater church, like many times in its history, is now captivated by the current (American) empire once again. Here we are, in what seems like late Rome; the larger church has long since become the empire religion, giving legitimacy and service to the empire. Speaking the truth under our circumstances is to say that, from a biblical perspective, God is generally opposed to empires and the kind of coercive power they embody. The Egyptian Empire, the Assyrian and Babylonian Empires, the Roman Empire. The biblical point of view was worked out in the shadow of all of these empires. As preachers, we know this. What do we say to the powers that be, to the authorities who are watching us? The empire wants our religious devotion to be in the service of its own agenda, which is contrary to God’s agenda. It takes courage to speak the truth during a time of lies.

Jeremiah’s reticence to respond enthusiastically to the call of God in his life is a rich vein to follow. We’ve seen this reluctance before in other stories, especially Moses, but others, too, maybe most of those biblical characters who have been called by God. Jeremiah is to be a spokesman for God, a messenger. How is being a prophet different from being an angel, since the word angel literally means messenger? The sermon is often referred to as the message. We know that messengers often get shot and prophets stoned. Who wants the job? The prophetic voice is the one that gets people into trouble. Preachers know this to be true. How often can we be prophets in the pulpit before the congregation squirms and grumbles. “We’re here to listen to the good news. We want to hear about peace and healing and love. Your message is too political.”

There is a deep prophetic dimension to the calling that each preacher has received, either from God or the congregation or the denomination. After all, a prophet is a preacher, and a preacher is a prophet at the very core. We study the scriptures along with our culture and we bring the word of God to bear; we have a message. As a preacher, I often want to run away from the very thing that Jeremiah wants to avoid: the existential vulnerability of speaking on behalf of God. God responds by saying “No excuses” and “Don’t be afraid.” Some texts terrify me when I think about preaching on them: texts of judgment and accountability; texts of shocking logic of choices leading down one road or another; texts of dread cautionary threats about the shear weight of being human; texts of standing before God; texts of a counter-intuitive vision that works against my unconscious instincts of fear, greed and bottomless appetites.

God has somehow known me and calls me. I resist. I can’t. I won’t. No excuses. Why are you afraid? Where is your faith? God wants me to bear the message that will pluck up and break down, destroy and overthrow, build and plant. This preacherly angst reflects the mood of the text. How can this be reflected in the sermon without dragging everyone into angst? After all, worship should not be a dread-fest. We have enough hymns that keep the tune to this mood, hymns of blood and death and yearning for somewhere beyond the river. The only road to hope is through speaking the truth.

Aren’t we all called to speak the truth? Aren’t we all called by God? By virtue of being human, we are continually confronted with God luring us into our future. Maybe Jeremiah speaks for all of us, unless we’re busy running from all the things that make us human: choice, responsibility, the risk of love, vulnerability. Maybe we need the courage of Jeremiah just to be human, to be fully and honestly ourselves. Standing up to the authorities of the structure that distracts us is an act of courage. If this be the case, then putting our finger on Jeremiah’s pulse is to put our finger on our own throbbing vein, taking the measure of the true meaning of life-blood, counting the beats of all the possibilities that continually are opening up to us. That might be a sermon.

Or, the preacher could avoid the existential angst altogether and preach on the Luke text. This would not be a cop-out, since the image of the infirm woman is loaded with metaphoric possibilities. A sermon could simply play out that image, not only for the woman, but for all of us. What does it mean to be bent like that, and for such a long time. What does she see? Her feet? The ground? Not to be able to stand up straight might lead us right back to the need for courage. The text calls it a spirit of infirmity. Spirit of infirmity? Pluck that string and it might resonate with all kinds of situations, stories, dilemmas, possibilities. What has kept the woman in this bent position for so long? What keeps us bent for so long? What are the many ways that we are not able to stand up straight? Why is it so easy for Jesus to make the woman stand up straight? This makes me think of Ezekiel and the Valley of Dry Bones. Is there a commiserate spirit of standing up straight?

Children and the text
The basic idea of courage could be followed in a very simple way with the children: that growing up and becoming who we are meant to be calls for difficult choices sometimes. Sometimes you have to stand up for yourself. Does that mean you have to be mean to others? No. Does that mean you have to hit someone or kick them, or push them right back? Not necessarily. You need to be strong in yourself. Here’s how. God loves you and is working with you to help you become the best person you can become. That’s a strong place. And you  can be strong just knowing that God loves you and is helping you. Courage is when you stand up in yourself because you know God loves you and wants the best for you.

Rick Marshall is co-pastor of Brea Congregational United Church of Christ in Brea, California, a church he has served for more than 24 years. He has contributed many resources to the Process & Faith website, including A Process-Relational Guide to Grief, Death, and Funerals.